The Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee of RBKC, Cllr. Malcolm Spalding, called a meeting on 8th April 2019 to examine whether changes need to be made to the basis on which pre-application advice is given by Council officers to applicants for planning permission.
The Chelsea Society was represented on the panel, and made the following points, which appeared to meet with the approval of the members of local organisations present at the meeting:
- Officers who have given pre-application advice should not make subsequent or related decisions under delegated powers, nor advise the Planning Applications Committee. The reason for this is that officers giving pre-application advice, will have formed a relationship, perhaps over months or even years, with applicants and their advisers. It is better that delegated decisions are made, and advice to committee is given, by an officer who has not been so involved. This would not mean doubling the workload, but simply dividing the time spent on the application between two different officers.
- Input from local people or their representatives is necessary at the pre–app stage. The reason for this is that it is difficult for the planning officer to give properly informed advice without hearing from people with detailed local knowledge. If advice is given without that input, the applicant could be misled, and incorrect advice may be difficult to correct at a later stage of the application process. This is particularly important in RBKC as hardly any of the planning officers, architects, or commercial developers, live in the Borough.
- Transparency at the pre-app stage is essential, and the pre-app advice must be placed immediately on the RBKC website in an easily accessible place alongside the application documents, and this should be done even if no planning application is made. The reason for this is that local people are entitled to know what developments are contemplated in their locality and what advice is being given by the Council in their name. Developers who have not yet bought the land may not wish the advice to be available to their competitors, but when weighing that interest against the right of local people to be properly informed, The Chelsea Society prefers transparency.
- When officers write reports on the basis of which the Planning Applications Committee makes decisions, they usually make a recommendation as to what decision the Committee should make, and Councillors are often reluctant to act contrary to that recommendation. This needs to change so that officers do not make recommendations, but simply sum up the facts and arguments on both sides, as a judge would do for the benefit of a jury.
The points made above should be implemented as soon as possible, and incorporated in an early revision of the Council’s Code of Practice for Councillors and Officers in planning matters.
The following additional point was made at the meeting:
- Developers can get pre-app advice, on a non-profit basis, from the Council’s officers on how they should make their application. By contrast, advice is not available to local Amenity Societies and Residents’ Associations on how they should resist the application, unless they can afford consultants’ fees, which are not offered by private consultants on a non-profit basis. This imbalance needs to be rectified either by the Council providing this advice to registered local organisations, or by funding an RBKC branch of Planning Aid for London. See http://www.planningaidforlondon.org.uk/?idno=3